Sunday, April 27, 2014

Alice in Wonderland

Directed by
Norman Z. McLeod
Writen by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies from the book by Lewis Carroll
Starring Charlotte Henry, Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper, Leon Errol, Louise Fazenda, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Baby Leroy, Mae Marsh, Jack Oakie, Edna May Oliver, May Robson, Charlie Ruggles, Alison Skipworth, Ned Sparks, Billy Barty, Billy Bevan
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at the Internet Archive

Alice in Wonderland is nearly impossible to dramatize.  The biggest hurdle is the story really has no plot:  Alice meets one odd character after another, has a strange conversation, then moves to the next.  In addition, Alice has no backstory* and other than being intelligent and matter of fact, there’s not much depth of personality. 

In 1933, when Paramount decided to film the book, they did something that had never been done on such a large scale:  they used an all-star cast.   Every major character in the books was played by a big-name Paramount star of the, making it have more big names than any other film made before.

The story starts out with a bored Alice seeing the white rabbit in the garden.  But instead of following, she goes through the looking glass and meets up with some chessmen, among other things.  Then, seeing the rabbit again, she follows, where the story starts following Wonderland.

The film’s strength is in its special effects and costume design.  Writer William Cameron Mendes was primarily a set designer and worked hard to get the looks right.  Given the technology of the time, they not bad today, if a tad bizarre.***  You really couldn’t see most of their faces, since they also decided to use costuming and masks to make them look like the characters in the book.

Gryphon, Alice, and Mock TurtleCharlotte Henry is just fine as Alice, but most of the actors, while professional, seem to treat the role for what it is:  a brief cameo where no one can tell who they are without the credits. Cary Grant is definitely unexpected as the mock turtle,** and W. C. Fields is a obvious choice for Humpty Dumpty.   Still, the movie does stick more to the story of the original book than most adaptations and keeps a lot of the incidents and dialog intact.  There’s a animated version of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and the Mad Tea party is pretty much intact.  Indeed, other than the short sequence with the mirror, the film follows the original book better than most adaptation.

When released, the film was an expensive flop.  Audiences had a hard time suspending disbelief when watching people in costume, it seems.  It gave rise to conventional Hollywood wisdom that you can’t do this type of fantasy, and it wasn’t until The Wizard of Oz that it was tried again.

The actors in the film weren’t hurt by its flop; a side effect of being unrecognizable.  Charlotte Henry made more films, but never transitioned from child star to adult. 

The film was pretty much forgotten once Disney put out its animated version in 1951.****  Disney didn’t care much for his version, putting his finger on the problem when he said, “Alice has no heart.”

The film has faded from memory, but overall still has plenty of joys.

*Yes, I know about Alice Liddell, but without that knowledge, there character is complete generic.  The joys of the books (favorites of mine) are many, depth of characterization is not one of them.

**Of note to film buffs is Cary Grant’s ad lib in His Girl Friday when he refers to Earl Williams by that name. 

***I’m surprised that this wasn’t a favorite film to see when you were high – maybe because it was in black and white.

****Sterling Holloway was in both versions:  the Frog in 1933 and the Cheshire Cat in 1951.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Andy Clyde (actor)

andy clyde(1892-1967)
IMDB Entry

Moviegoing was a different experience in the 1930s.  No multiplexes, of course, and instead of there being a single movie on each screen, the show went on all evening, with cartoons, newsreels, previews of coming attractions,* and, of course, short subjects.  Nowadays, people are generally only aware of two of the major short subject series:  The Three Stooges and Our Gang (The Little Rascals), but there were many more, and one of the longest lived series were those starring Andy Clyde.

Clyde was born in Scotland, the son of music hall performers.  He moved to the US in 1912 and broke into silent movies with Mack Sennett in 1922, where he established his character – an old man with walrus moustache and wire-rimmed glasses.  He soon began to star in a series of silent short subjects and moved easily into talkies.

When Columbia started doing short subjects, Clyde, who had a contract dispute with Sennett, was the first person they hired.  The Andy Clyde comedies were a mainstay of their program.  He appeared in 77 films until the unit was shut down in 1956, in addition to 68 before joining Columbia.

Clyde always played a father or uncle.  He was mostly a physical comedian; his big strength was his ability to do a double take. 

In addition to his series, Clyde appeared in features, often as a comedy sidekick in 40s westerns, since his persona fit the “grizzled old prospector” images to a T. 

The end of the short subject didn’t mean the end of his career, and Clyde moved easily to television, appearing as a guest star, usually in westerns.  He had recurring roles in The Real McCoys and Lassie, and popped up on shows as diverse at Gunsmoke, Dr. Kildare, The Bob Cummings Show, the People’s Choice, and many others.  He continued to work regularly almost up until his death in 1967.

*Now they call them “trailers.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The People’s Choice (TV)

Sock, Mandy & Cleo(1955-58)
Created by
Irving Brecher
Starring  Jackie Cooper, Patricia Breslin, Bernadette, Mary Jane Croft, Paul Maxey

More often than not, child actors’ careers are over at puberty.  The transition to adult actor is difficult, even when they want to continue in the business.  Jackie Cooper was a major child star in the early 30s, starting out in Our Gang* comedies and getting an Academy Award nomination for Skippy.  He worked regularly until the war, but struggled afterwards** to reestablish himself.  Luckily, TV came along and he started with guest roles and as part of the repertory company for Robert Montgomery Presents.  But he tasted success on the small screen with The People’s Choice.

Cooper played Sock Miller, a young politician in the town of New City, California.  He was dating Mandy Peoples (Patricia Breslin), daughter of the town’s mayor (Paul Maxey).  The show centered on the romance – witch took an unusual turn at the end of the second season:  Sock and Mandy got married.  Unfortunately, fate required that they keep the marriage secret until Sock made enough money to support her in the style Mayor People’s wanted.

CleoThe big star of the show, however, was Cleo (Bernadette), a basset hound.  Voiced by Mary Jane Croft, Cleo would comment on the actions with sardonic asides.  This was still a relatively new concept,*** but it was more than just a cute idea.  Cleo was genuinely funny and whenever the camera cut to her (often wearing some weird getup like glasses), audiences knew a zinger was coming.

The show was created by Irving Brecher.  He had was a very successful Hollywood screenwriter, best known for having the sole writing credit for The Marx Brothers’ At the Circus and Go West.****  He also had an uncredited role in the screenplay of The Wizard of Oz. 

The show was also interesting in that it showed progression in the characters over its run.  Sock had different jobs, his marriage to Mandy was revealed, and other things changed as time went by.

The series ended after three seasons.  Cooper, now firmly established as an adult TV star, went right on to another long-running TV series, Hennessey about a navy doctor.  He continued in guest roles and is probably best known to modern audiences as Perry White in the first three Christopher Reeve Superman movies.

The People’s Choice is an overlooked gem of the 50s.

*The actual name of the series.  It was produced by Hal Roach, who sold the series to MGM in 1938 (when it was past its prime).  When he tried to sell the original shorts to TV, MGM owned the name, so he used The Little Rascals.  I prefer Our Gang because it’s original and describes the group far better.

**One of his films, Kilroy Was Here, paired him with the big child star of the teens, Jackie Coogan.

***Charles M. Schultz had only created Snoopy a year or two before.

****Other writers were probably involved, and the Marx were known to ad lib a lot – and no one could write for Harpo.  But Brecher is the only writer to get a sole credit for any of their films.